I took notice when Paul Petronella, the owner of Paulie's, Tweeted a couple of months ago that he had bought a serious new pasta extruder for his casual Italian counter-service place on Westheimer. Paulie's has won fans for its homey spaghetti, fettucine and lasagna dishes, but this costly new contraption by Arcobaleno — manufacturer to such culinary stars as Marco Canora and Tony Maws — promised a brave new game, one with textural bite and over 100 different cuts and shapes of noodle delivered by a set of bronze dies.
In the spirit of collaboration that has gripped the Houston food world, Petronella turned his "new baby" over for chefs Terrence Gallivan and Seth Siegel-Gardner of Pilot Light Restaurant Group to experiment with in the studio where they stage their high-flying pop-up dinners. (Gallivan, it should be noted, followed Michael White as executive chef at Alto, the well-regarded contemporary Northern Italian restaurant in New York.)
The first three fresh-pasta dishes the pair has consulted on are now up for grabs on Paulie's specials board, and I'm here to tell you they are well worth trying. Fat tubes of bucatini Amatriciana fairly bounced in their bright red-peppery tomato sauce fleshed out with snippets of smoked bacon.
The heat level was grab-you-by-the-lapels stuff (I had to wipe away a happy tear at one point), which seemed appropriate for a Houston audience, and the sauce was applied with American enthusiasm, which is to say it not only clung to the pasta but left a garlicky glazed-scarlet heap in the bowl once that last strand of pasta was twirled up.
Good as the sauce was, less would have been more.
No such overload with the short, ridged tubes of rigatoni in a gentle ragu. The ground veal and beef and fine dice of carrot were left to speak for themselves, tempered by cream and just a tinge of tomato. The pasta had excellent spring to it, too.
I loved being able to order smaller-sized portions, rather that the entree-size plates that would have prevented me from sampling two different pastas at a single indulgent sitting.
For more prudent souls, the small-size pasta here can combine with one of Paulie's very nice salads (also available in user-friendly "side" editions as well as not-so-"small" and larger portions) to make a civilized light dinner or lunch. The portions would be considered "primi," (or first-course) size in Italy, and sometimes I find that's all I want. It's swell to find that option in such a useful, accessible restaurant.
I'm already looking forward to tasting the new house-made canestri (ridged pasta cups like little baskets, I believe) with crimini and shiitake mushrooms, garlic, sage and marsala cream. Eventually Paulie's will introduce more dishes using the new fresh pastas, and they have already substituted the house-made variety in all their spaghetti dishes, including the Saturday-only special of spaghetti with clams and pancetta. I want that, too.
Maybe with one of the Italian whites from the wine list revamped recently by Julio Hernandez, whose palate I've learned to respect over the years as he has moved from a sommelier position for Pappas restaurant group to distributing and then to consulting.
It's a particular pleasure to be able to order an interesting Italian red — a graceful Damilano Nebbiolo d'Alba, say, or a Scarpetta Barbera bursting with soft, dark fruit — and to be able to drink it at cool cellar temperatures in generously sized, good-quality glassware. Plenty of pricy Italian restaurants in Houston don't do nearly as well with their wine service. To encounter this degree of thought and care in a self-serve neighborhood spot is pretty exciting.
So's the new coffee program set up by David Buehrer and Ecky Prabanto of Greenway Coffee & Tea, and the addition of Eatsie Boys ice cream for dessert. Their fig-and-ricotta gelato was perfect after a couple of plates of pasta. I departed thinking that Paulie's was an unusually good value that seemed likely to get even better.
This is what can happen when a restaurateur gets serious about upgrading his operation, step by important step. I'd like to think of the very welcome transformation of Paulie's as a harbinger of what might occur all over town as a rising culinary tide lifts many boats.
Paulie's: 1834 Westheimer, 713-807-7271. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday—Saturday.